75 years later, the Spanish Civil War still enthrals, “the last good war” in the words of Ernest Hemingway, the best-known and most disagreeable protagonist of Amanda Vaill’s beautifully written Hotel Florida. She tells the story of three couples, moving around this famous hotel, haunt of journalists, Russian generals, prostitutes and profiteers in besieged Madrid, from 1936-39 the worldwide symbol of resistance to fascism.
Though all six are fiercely committed to the anti-fascist cause, they are very different: the Foreign Press Censors, the improbably matched Austrian political journalist, Ilsa Kulcsar, and the melancholy Arturo Barea (the only Spaniard of the six); the brave and foolhardy young photographers, Robert Capa and Gerda Taro; and the North American writers, Martha Gellhorn and Hemingway. Vaill triumphs with these last two in particular: she makes the reader feel their attractive glamour, but does not flinch from revealing their preening egos.
Despite the thousands of books written about the war, this succeeds in sounding fresh. Where she repeats a well-known story, she tells it in elegant and subtle prose; and remarkably, she has found new, interesting archive material, particularly on Kulcsar and Gellhorn.
All six protagonists face conflict in truth-telling. Did Capa really take the famous picture of the militiaman as he was killed on an Andalusian hillside or was the shot posed? And does it matter? Hemingway falsified a story to make what he’d seen more vivid for his readers, while asserting that he only lived to “write one true sentence”.
Vaill inter-weaves the six’s stories, moving back and forth between them and “reconstructing” (her word) their thoughts and feelings. Academic historians may sniff at her writing novelistic scenes and will quibble with interpretations, for this book is popularised history. But popularisation is no bad thing: her approach makes the oft-told story vivid. And there is no dumbing-down: her depth of scholarship and organisation of material are impressive.
A writer of a previous joint biography on Sara and Gerald Murphy, Vaill unashamedly focuses on individuals rather than issues. But she does not avoid the war’s complex politics. She has found an original focus to bring an important story to a new generation.
Michael Eaude is author of a biography of Arturo Barea, ‘Triumph at Midnight in The Century’ (Sussex University Press)